Massena schools get waiver for free meals

MASSENA — U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers that had been put in place toward the end of the 2019-20 school year have been extended, allowing the Massena Central School District to continue providing free meals to students.

“The USDA has extended the waiver until December. That means that our students, whether they’re in person or remote, have access to breakfast and lunch with no cost,” including those who would typically pay for their breakfast and lunch meals, Superintendent Patrick Brady said.

The waivers, which were announced on Aug. 31, run until Dec. 31 or until available funding runs out. They allow the district to continue serving Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option meals at no cost, and permit meals to be served outside of the typically-required group settings and meal times. In addition, parents and guardians are allowed to pick up meals for their children.

Mr. Brady said breakfast and lunch meal packs will be distributed from 11 a.m. to noon Mondays at each of the district’s five school buildings. Meals will be distributed curbside, following the practice that was used last spring and during the summer.

“That’s what we will do for the time being,” he said. “Originally we had stated they would have to purchase them if they were not free and reduced. With the announcement by the USDA, we can now provide them to all of our families without charge.”

He said parents should still fill out a free and reduced lunch application because, once the waiver is over, the district will need to charge families that do not meet the income guidelines.

“Free and reduced lunch applications are available if they feel they are eligible,” Mr. Brady said.

Meal prices for the 2020-21 school year are $2.55 for elementary lunches and $2.65 for junior high and high school lunches. There is no change in the reduced price breakfast and lunch (25 cents) or the full student price of breakfast ($1.20).

Under the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act, districts are required to raise lunch prices over time to close the gap between the revenues they receive for paid meals versus free meal revenues. The increase must be a minimum of 10 cents.

The district has been approved for the USDA’s Community Eligibility Program, which provides free meals to all students in high poverty areas without collecting household applications. The directly certified students enrolled in other programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) determine the district’s eligibility.

Districts must have at least 40 percent of its students directly certified through New York state to qualify for the program. Massena currently has about 52 percent of students directly certified. Based on the federal formula, this means that 87 percent of student meal costs would be fully reimbursed by the federal government. The remaining 13 percent of the cost would need to be paid by the district.

Although the district is eligible for the Community Eligibility Program, Mr. Brady said during a recent board of education meeting that now wasn’t the right time to make a change.

If the district saw 10 percent growth in meal participation, they would qualify for $39,224.28 more to help the meal program than they would with the National School Lunch Program currently used by the district. That growth would include not only meals consumed in the school, but also meal packs picked up each week for students at home.

On the other hand, seeing 0 percent growth with 55 percent participation would cost the district $452,351.19.

Mr. Brady had said that getting 10 percent growth was questionable this year because of the impact of COVID-19.

“We need 10 percent growth in a normal year to actually not lose money by changing over to that program. We’re only going to have half our kids in the building under COVID. That’s why I’m saying 0 percent growth at 55 percent participation because we don’t have our kids there. We don’t know how many are going to show up on Mondays to get the food packs,” he told board members. “I think we stand to lose a lot of money if we were to go CEP this year.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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